AT&T LogoIf you're reading TouchArcade, chances are you've got an iPhone bundled with a bucket of data large enough to do just about anything you'd want before it refreshes on next month's billing cycle. But, there's a lot of folks out there who only want the free phone, the cheapest service, and as such are stuck with the most meager data allotment that AT&T offers: 300MB. Apple's current limit for over the air cellular downloads from the App Store is 100MB, meaning, it's entirely possible for people on these low-end plans to burn through their data in three downloads. Now, chances are that if you're on the 300MB a month plan you don't do this, but that could all change with AT&T's new "Sponsored Data" program.

The easiest way to think of this is as a modern day toll-free telephone number. It doesn't matter where you're calling from, if you're calling an 800 number, it's paid for by the company with said 800 number. Similarly, sponsored data will allow companies to, well, sponsor downloads to pick up the cost. Developers dabbling in the world of free to play already have removed the price tag of their games to encourage downloads, and similarly picking up the tab for the download of their game removes the final barrier of entry. Additionally, the data used inside of these games could also be covered by the developers.

For the end user, this program will be practically transparent. Presumably if sponsored data catches on in a big way, Apple will need to update the App Store to indicate which apps feature this benefit. AT&T is the first American cellular carrier to offer this sort of sponsored data package, but if it even vaguely begins to catch on, it wouldn't surprise me to see other carriers quickly following suit. Free to play developers will undoubtedly race to adopt this, as most of the big outfits are already forking out tons of cash for user acquisition anyway, and this seems like the next logical step.

[via MacRumors]

  • webman2k

    I see interesting possibilities for manufacturers as well. Imagine Apple announces that every iPhone comes with 500mb data per month, you only pay your carrier for excess. Interesting.

    • Eli Hodapp

      T-Mobile is already doing this for iPads sold under their service, except it's 200MB.

  • Lucavious

    Oh hell no. Now suddenly AT&T gets to arbitrarily choose which apps to honor with allowing people to actually download them conveniently?

    I get that it's one new, probably free option that customers didn't have before . But I don't like the idea of a phone carrier giving special treatment to any app provider, bonus or no. It's not their place.

    • Eli Hodapp

      I don't think you understand what's happening here. Again, think of it as the mobile app equivalent of a 1-800 number. In that case, AT&T isn't doing anything special or making any exceptions for companies who have 1-800 numbers, instead, they just pay for all the charges incurred for the phone call.

      This is the same thing. So, for instance, can negotiate with AT&T and be like "Hey we want to pick up the tab for all the downloads and data used in our games." This isn't some arbitrary prize wheel that AT&T is spinning to randomly select what apps will be available for free data.

      • JPhilipp

        The prize wheel isn't arbitrary, it just benefits those content providers who pay (pay AT&T, that is) -- which is bad for net neutrality.

        We have an online game (no download, runs in-browser) and if there was a similar scheme for websites and all big in-browser app companies who have the budget pay, our traffic is effectively bottlenecked because we don't have the money to compete. Bad for creativity and a free market, and bad for consumers as they get content not based on merit, but based on who pays more (content now becomes similar to ads).

      • C. Stubb

        Welcome to Capitalism, my friend.

      • JPhilipp

        In a working market, users/ consumers should be able to decide where they put their money, thus producing better products -- it shouldn't be done in shady backhand deals. Or do you think e.g. a bribe to a government official to get one's corporation better subsidies is also working capitalism?

      • C. Stubb

        If this was a "shady, backhand" deal like you mistakenly believe it to be, then they wouldn't be telling the media outlets about it, would they?

        In cases you missed my given, this (TouchArcade) is a media outlet to which the circumstances of the "deal" have been directly or indirectly divulged. QED

      • Goggles789

        Because everyone tells media outlets the truth all the time, right?

  • Adams Immersive

    Apple wouldn't even have to modify the App Store to support this* as long as the apps are designed (as some already are) to download data from a separate server at first launch.

    * And I'd be amazed if they DID modify the App Store for this. Because a) for now it's just yet-another-random-carrier-experiment that may not last or may become obnoxious in some way, and b) it would only work on one carrier for now, making the App Store and app downloads feel (and be) more complex and inconsistent. Better to push that carrier variation into individual apps rather than make it a store-wide can of worms.

    P.S. I can imagine this being used to make ads slightly more palatable: a free app could state that its ads use no data for AT&T customers. Or maybe that ALL data in the app is "free," if you choose to enable ads for that purpose.

    • Mess

      Obviously the don't have to make changes. But it would be beneficial though to identify which apps take advantage of it though.

  • Earth Vs. Me

    Bucket of data? AT&T? Hahaha! Even if you pay out the ass for the largest data plan they offer, you still have to ration your streaming vidoes and music like a canteen of water in the Sahara.

    • Wizard of Odyssey

      I don't see this as a big benefit for free-to-play ...but if they could get streaming media onboard, it could be interesting. Imagine if there were a "Netflix phone" that could stream unlimited wireless video?

      In practice, it's probably going to benefit AT&T alone, with little to no benefit to us, the end users.

      The sooner we get to an unmetered mobile data future, the better. This seems like a bump on that road.

      • Eli Hodapp

        A Netflix phone isn't going to happen without significant overhaul of how cellular technology works or if Steve Perlman's Shannon's Law-breaking magical wireless technology turns out to be more than vaporware. The whole reason unlimited plans have gone away is because there isn't enough radio spectrum for data hogs anymore with the mass market proliferation of the smartphone.

        I'm not sure how you get that AT&T is the main benefactor in this, as they're going to sell data usage regardless of who is paying for it. The win here comes in for casual gamers with super low-end plans that can download Candy Crush without worrying about using a tenth of their monthly data allotment or paying overages.

        Again, over-thinking this as anything more than a modern day app 1-800 number is overcomplicating things.

      • Wizard of Odyssey

        I know, "you can't change the laws of physics," I've just grown cynical enough about the motives of the wireless carriers not to trust anything they do ...especially when it is presented as a benefit to us (which this never was).

        If it breaks down barriers to entry for lower-income or flip phone people, it's probably good for the carriers and perhaps the industry as a whole.

        Free to play is such a toilet already, it's kind of a drag to see yet another type of freemium currency in play.

      • C. Stubb

        Data isn't a "freemium currency". It's

      • dancj

        That may be an issue in America, but here in the UK my phone gets very heavy 3G Netflix usage and my cheap (£5 for calls plus £3 for data) Unlimited Data contract seems to actually be unlimited.

    • webman2k

      I think you'll find that very subjective. My wife and I share a gig, and do plenty of music streaming, mapping, Facebook, games etc. having access to public wifi as it grows has been incredible. The two of us barely touch half our bucket.

  • Chris McNutt

    And if company X is paying for your bandwidth, what happens with net neutrality? Do they get to control your content and services choices? This bandwidth isn't free, and no one will pay for it without it being profitable. If they can lock in into their services, or lock you out of the competition because you are effectively on their network, this would be a loss for the consumer, not a win. Especially when you consider most people have so few choices in internet provider.

    • Eli Hodapp

      Probably nothing. I doubt anything is happening here beyond companies negotiating with AT&T to buy data in bulk then pass that on to push people into downloading their stuff. Occam's Razor and all.

      • Chris McNutt

        You don't think that part of the value proposition coming from companies who have tried to control services and throttle bandwidth won't include the purchaser rights for content restrictions? Not to mention use metrics and data?

      • Eli Hodapp


    • C. Stubb

      Nobody's going to be holding a gun to your head making you use only sponsored data. The control over what content the end user receives is still ultimately based on what the end user chooses to receive.

      • Chris McNutt

        I'm not suggesting a mandate. I'm suggesting there is a capacity for manipulative subversion of consumer choice.

      • C. Stubb

        Forgive me, but isn't that essentially the function of marketing? Subliminal (more or less) influence of the consumer body's decisions?

      • Chris McNutt

        There is a difference between influencing a decision and eliminating a choice.

  • NinjaKitteh

    At this point I'm shocked Apple doesn't just buy one of the big carriers so they can have their own cellular service...

    • ineptidude

      Google would likely be first to do that

      • C. Stubb

        They're already dabbling in Internet service, so your prediction makes sense.

    • Mess

      Not in their interest to do so.

      But let's play pretend; would it be on other carriers?
      Would they buy a carrier for every country they are in?
      What happens when they have no coverage?
      Obviously they would want 4G but the coverage in the UK for 4G is terrible.
      What would the data packages be like?

      I can't be bothered to write anymore, but just buying a network isn't as easy as it seems. And why would they want to become a mobile operator. Just silly if you ask me.

  • kowwok

    How does one get the attention of TouchArcade for writing opportunities? I've sent emails to the specified address to no avail. I'd really appreciate a response from anyone on the TouchArcade team!

    *apologies for the hijacking comment*

  • JPhilipp

    Sounds like being against Net Neutrality: preferring certain connections when financial benefit is involved.

  • zergslayer69

    I'm not so much worried as to who will pick up the bill but will ATT track the data correctly? Any slip up and you'll be using hundreds of megs on your own plan and their data tracking service doesn't give you enough detail as to how much data goes where.

  • rewind

    Is this only for the 300mb plan or all plans? If so, ignore my comment below.

    Honestly, I don't think companies want to pay for you to download their game. Only about 10% of the players actually spend money on IAP in most games, and they definitely wouldn't make as much. Casual gamers are very willing to delete apps to make room for new ones, and i don't know if the dev would want to pay for everyone's download.

  • Goggles789

    So glad I got grand-fathered into the unlimited data plan when they still offered it.

  • philodygmn

    Eli, your 800-# analogy ignores the effects on Net Neutrality which don't exist with phones because the telephony market has no comparable data pressures: it would be like only getting a dial tone if your call was for a purpose someone else already paid to allow.

  • Friv 2 Friv 4

    It would be beneficial though to identify.

  • tommet

    So anybody read the article on the Verge as to why this is a bad thing for pretty much everybody except AT&T? Tried leaving a link to it, but for some unknown reason my comment never seemed to appear.

  • Jason Perry

    Thankfully the FCC is looking to put a stop to this kind of non-sense. This program would have been a disaster.